The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance

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Rusty Thomas – too ignorant to resign, too dangerous to terminate
Lee Walton

Many Charlestonians grew up thinking their city government existed to protect the lives, safety, and property of its citizens; now most know with certainty that the primary objective of the Riley Administration is to protect its own interest. As recently as in this past Saturday’s Palter and Chatter, Riley was again quoted doggedly defending Chief Rusty Thomas as “…dedicated, hard-working and a ‘great leader’…I have confidence in (Thomas) and we will move forward with him as a leader.” In reality, Riley hasn’t got much of a choice. He handpicked Thomas and created his “best fire chief in the nation” image with a creative public relations campaign that ultimately won Riley his coveted Class 1 ISO Rating. Now Riley must live with the unintended consequences of his choice and the deaths of nine firefighters on his conscience.

Rusty Thomas has become a national pariah in firefighting circles, and beyond the CFD, he and Riley both know that his professional career as a firefighter is finished. Prophetically, he’s now become an all-too-publicly-visible albatross hanging from the Mayor’s scrawny neck. Adding to the injury, Rusty Thomas has neither the character nor common decency to resign. Nonetheless, he’s dangerous to Riley’s image and legacy because of what he knows about the dirty, albeit not so little, political machine that keeps Riley and his cronies in power. In all probability, if Thomas told a fraction of what he knows of Riley’s covert political actions to control city politics, Riley’s legacy and political career would be tarnished beyond repair. If terminated for any reason of professional incompetence, Rusty Thomas could sulk off and refuse to remain silent as Riley’s “fall guy”. Riley can’t take that chance.

The revelations of the past week presented in the draft National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Report confirm what most citizens have suspected for almost a year – incompetent leadership was the primary fuel that fed the “error chain” which resulted in the tragic, unnecessary loss of nine lives at the June 18, 2007 Sofa Super Store conflagration. The essence of the draft NIOSH Report can be distilled into a half-dozen key causes of the SSS tragedy – ignorance, arrogance, pride, poor equipment, poor training and incompetence. These are the primary elements, which fueled the fire that Mayor Riley repeatedly has characterized as a “perfect storm”.

As for the reactions of the hard working, professional rank-and-file CFD firefighters who want to make the department one to be proud of again, they rightfully bristle at the idea of rewarding failure as Riley continues to protect and defend Rusty Thomas. As a leader, Riley sets a very bad example for all city employees and, in doing so, has deeply damaged morale in the process. What institute of higher learning did Riley attend to learn such a perverted leadership style? He surely didn’t learn to reward incompetence while at the Citadel.

There are other forces in Charleston who are as culpable in the tragic loss of the nine firefighters as Mayor Riley and Chief Thomas. The Palter and Chatter, in the personification of its owners, editors, and senior staff, continues to reap the financial benefits of Riley’s near four-decade reign. They ultimately share in the blame for perpetuating Riley’s irresponsible leadership style and personnel choices of those who would protect the citizens of Charleston. The Palter and Chatter’s unwillingness to hold Riley accountable for his failures stems from a long nurtured symbiotic relationship that benefits both, often at the expense of honest citizens trampled underfoot by the “Riley Machine” in its unfettered quest for unchecked power and control of business and politics in the Lowcountry.

Not long ago, Helen Thomas, one of the grand dames of national journalism who has covered Washington politics for over sixty years, offered a statement that is well suited to describe the relationship between the Riley Administration and the Palter and Chatter.

The consolidation of media ownership, the quest for profits, and the scandals and ethical lapses of reporters and the failure of reporters to ask tough questions in the face of unprecedented governmental efforts to manage information…has done a tremendous disservice to the public…who calls for a return to fair, honest reporting that delivers the facts without spin.

Ms. Thomas’ statement speaks volumes about the absolute silence from the editors of the Palter and Chatter and their journalistic obligation to hold Riley accountable for the actions of his utterly incompetent fire chief. The Palter and Chatter can not demand Rusty Thomas’ resignation or demand that Riley terminate him for incompetence, because they are as guilty as both in the tangled web that led to the needless deaths of these nine brave men.